Beyond the Border

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Review of 'From Immigration Controls to Welfare Controls', eds. Steve Cohen, Beth Humphries and Ed Mynott, Routledge £17.99

The plight of asylum seekers and refugees is normally associated with immigration controls, border police, home office procedures, deportation snatch squads and detention centres. Yet behind these vicious measures is another equally brutal system of internal controls that ensures asylum seekers continue to suffer even when they have managed to enter the country. As Ed Mynott says in the opening chapter, 'There is more to the process of tightening controls than closing borders. Across the developed capitalist countries, immigration controls have increasingly come to involve restriction of access to welfare provision on the grounds of immigration status.'

This book traces this process back to the very first immigration controls--the 1905 Aliens Act, which was aimed mostly at Jewish immigration from eastern Europe.

Just like today, politicians and the media had already whipped up an image of 'unpleasant, indecent people,' reporting how, 'English families are being ruthlessly turned out to make way for these foreign invaders.' The act defined 'undesirable aliens' as being people who could not support themselves or their dependants and who were therefore bound to become a 'charge on the rates'.

Ever since then the access to state welfare for immigrants has been restricted on the basis of a principle first laid down in the 19th century Poor Law, whereby those receiving assistance need to be seen as worse off than those who are not. It is a principle that has under most recent legislation, including New Labour's 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act, become transformed into an 'apartheid welfare system for asylum seekers'.

The 1999 act brought in the dispersal programme and the infamous voucher system for asylum seekers. The act also shifted responsibility for organising social support for asylum seekers from the department of social security to the Home Office--the body in charge of immigration. Already tough measures to prevent asylum seekers gaining access to welfare were being made even more brutal. For example, asylum seekers' children have been systematically eliminated from child protection legislation.

The changes also deepened the process whereby social workers and voluntary sector agencies have been co-opted into policing asylum seekers and ensuing as little money as possible is spent on them.

The final chapter concentrates on the debate over immigration controls and demolishes the idea that non-racist controls are possible. This book is a very useful addition to the armoury of literature for anyone fighting against the attacks on asylum seekers.